We the People is one of those do-it-yourself legal service operations. Marketers advertise it with sayings such as "Divorces for only $19.95." Their motto is "No lawyers-save money." The owners recently sold this business for more than 10 million dollars. I am sure they simply relied on their $19.95 business sale package forms to handle that transaction.
We the People is hugely popular because of a widespread mentality in our culture that emphasizes good old American self-reliance. Doctors? Really, who needs them? Diagnose and treat yourself. Medical schools are elitist anyway. Certified securities brokers? Master the intricacies of Wall Street by accessing the resources of the Internet. Buy and sell stocks yourself and save money. Lawyers? Now there is a rip-off profession if ever there was one! File your own lawsuit and argue your own case to the court. Just read the forms, pay the filing fees, and follow the rules.
People who do not retain legal counsel and who act as their own lawyer in court are what the law calls in propria persona litigants (meaning to appear before the court "on your own behalf" or to "stand in your own stead").
Interestingly, there is also a phrase forged out of centuries of common law experience: "He who represents himself has an idiot for a client." This is most certainly true in this world and, I contend, even more true in an infinitely more sobering proceeding which awaits all of us in the next.
Modern man's view on approaching God (and, sad to say, much of the view of modern American evangelical Christianity) is parallel to that of litigants who come before the court "in their own stead" and with no clear recognition of their condition or standing with the court. They assume they can and should meet God "naked"-on their own terms-since God the Father surely must be their friend. He is, as some say here in California, a cool dude. Indeed the Christian Scriptures do clearly speak of God as Friend in the context of the atoning and mediating work of Jesus Christ his Son as our counselor at law and advocate before the Father. Talk of God the Father as Judge or as the God of Wrath and Condemnation has been removed from the lexicon of modern Christianity.
"Wrath," "anger," and "condemnation" are not words normally chosen to adorn the marquee in front of the spanking new Starbuck's Community Fellowship of Pure Joy church (Today's sermon topic: "How the Lost Suffer in Hell for Eternity"-Day care provided). Nor are they words highlighted in effective evangelism seminars. They are, however, terms used repeatedly in the canonical Scriptures. They flow from a deep legal or forensic structure set forth repeatedly in those same Scriptures. The Law as found in Scripture, said the reformers, indeed always accuses (Lex semper accusat). It never makes one righteous and is designed primarily to create fear and terror and to harass the conscience.
This is true in terms of what the reformers called the "theological" use of the law. As a trial lawyer, I can vouch that it is also true in another sense that the law was used by the reformers-the so-called political or civil use of the law. Judges, law courts, and the legal system are pointers, on an earthly level, to a coming Tribunal of Terror for those without a lawyer who choose to stand in propria persona and in their own merit and goodness. Christian theology speaks of this as the "Great Assize," or Great Gathering or Judgment Day at the end of time when Christ will return to "judge the living and the dead" (as said so majestically in the Nicene Creed and described so vividly by Jesus himself in Matt. 25:31-46). This biblical idea of a need for a mediator and advocate between the Law Giver and his wrath, anger, judgment, and condemnation is reflected particularly clearly in our legal system and especially in how a trial operates under the western common law system.
At the outset, we note that the Eastern Orthodox argue that any imposition of legal categories or courtroom terminology on Scripture is simply an artificial lamination of the Latin West onto Scripture's Greek worldview. However, the concepts of law, forensic or legal justification, a courtroom motif, and the sinner's position before God as analogous to that of the guilty before the judge in a court of law come directly from Paul more than they come from Augustine or the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages. Paul's letters give us this vocabulary explicitly (see, for starters, Rom. 3:19; 4:2; 5:10; 10:3 and also 1 Cor. 4:3-4 and Gal. 4:4-5). We are told later in St. John's letter that Christ is our advocate before God the Father and that "He intercedes for us"-the obvious implication being that we are ill-equipped to appear in our own stead when it comes to approaching the Father and need this advocate functioning fully in that unique office and in our behalf both now and in the future. There is, therefore, the clear picture in Scripture itself that a human law court is a pointer to the Great Assize at the end of time, and that an otherwise certain-to-be defendant should retain counsel now for that court appearance while counsel can be obtained.
Consider the following to be some free legal advice in preparation for the Great Assize of God's Judgment Seat in that final day.
1. We all should know our place and keep our mouths firmly shut at the Great Assize.
Courtrooms (like cathedrals) inspire decorum, reverence, and a bit of fear. They are designed to put you in your place and to keep distance between you and the judge. An armed bailiff also reminds you not to mess with the judge. You are not in charge of the proceeding.
You are called to order by the bailiff, you rise at the procession and recession of the judge (as well as rising each time you address the judge), and wait while the judge takes the bench. There, high and lifted up on the altar of human reason, is the judge robed in black, symbolic of dispassionate and sober judgment and reason grounded only on raw fact and black-and-white law and not on whim or prejudice or bias. Litigants and lawyers remain silent until spoken to by the judge. Counsel are professionally dressed. Wise counsel have their clients in appropriate and respectful attire suited for being in the presence of the court.
There is sacred and unapproachable architectural space in the courtroom between the litigants and the court (called "the well"), analogous to altar space in the great cathedrals of Europe. Those who wander uninvited into the well are risking trouble for violating that sacred separation between litigants and the court. They have dared to stare in the face of the judge and are standing on holy ground without removing their shoes. Similarly, one must ask the court for permission to approach a witness in the witness box, since the witness box is within the judge's domain and is part of that unapproachable space that may not be entered without permission.
The point of this rigorous formality and reverence is to provide a constant reminder that the judge is not our buddy or pal or even our friend who can be approached in whatever way makes us comfortable. Human judges are to be feared and respected. All must act in a certain way before the court (just as every knee will bow on that Great Day). If one doubts this, try strolling into federal court with a baseball hat on backwards.
Know how to behave at the Great Assize. We all should keep our collective mouths shut. Understand what reverence and decorum and respect and honor are all about. In fact, it is not a bad idea to find a theology of worship that "gets" those concepts now in this life.
2. We should all lose the idea of being our own lawyer at the Great Assize.
Laymen are adrift when appearing in their own stead in a courtroom and before a judge. They have told the judge, in so many words, that they think they have the ability to handle this proceeding without an advocate or mediator. Those who appear without counsel often get horrific results and can endure the wrath of the court. In propria persona litigants have been jailed because they offended the court by their conduct. Knowledge of how to approach the court and how to act in the court's presence is something a good trial lawyer or advocate understands. It comes from multiple appearances before a court and knowledge of the court's procedures. Retaining experienced and professional counsel is a way of saying to the court, "I respect you enough not to show up and try to argue my own case and make a total idiot of myself and endure your wrath. I have someone who I know has appeared before you successfully, who I understand you trust, and who understands my condition and my case more objectively than I even do."
You need someone who knows your predicament and the facts intimately and knows what the judge requires.
We all will need a unique advocate when we appear at that Great Assize because our condition is so fundamentally defective that we have no idea whose presence we are in or how flawed our condition really is before the Law Giver. Our offenses reek to high heaven and our supposed good works done in reliance on our good natures are pure noxious fumes (Rom. 1 and 2). That is the case from the most pious nun who prays 18 hours a day to the virulent atheistic university professor who has never darkened a church door.
3. The professional standard for who may act as an advocate and counselor at law at the Great Assize is totally exclusive.
About the worst that can happen to one as a result of an earthly legal proceeding is either financial ruin or time spent in prison. The consequences of an adverse judgment against one at the Great Assize, however, is infinitely more dreadful. Jesus Christ himself argued of a coming day when the consequences of imperfect obedience to the Law in thought, word, and deed will result in eternal punishment where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and where the flame does not go out.
As importantly, the picture in Scripture is that our chances of prevailing at the Great Assize without a very particular advocate with very particular qualifications are not just "poor"-they are zero. The evidentiary record is absolutely ironclad and every verdict predictable. We are worthy, when standing in our own stead, of a totally adverse judgment on every level. The qualifications for an advocate in this proceeding is that they be completely and totally righteous. In a word-sinless. Last time I checked, that eliminates most of my profession.
Under these circumstances, immediate retention of the right advocate is vital, especially since our appearance at that proceeding could be heralded at any time, for "no man knows that hour." The Great Assize is not the time to test out our own advocacy skills nor to rely on legal arguments. "I did my best under the circumstances and was generally more decent than the other slobs on the planet" is a well-tried but impermissible defense that the court will strike on its own motion. The judgment on our sins is and will be completely just and warranted. The judge at that time is not likely to be interested in our ability to argue for the exclusion of prejudicial evidence, especially since the sum and total of our entire lives is one gigantic mountain of prejudicial evidence. We will get precisely what we deserve without retention of the only advocate who has legal standing before the Father.
Conclusion: Don't end up in the same position as the "good" residents of Dogville, U.S.A. at their Great Assize.
In Lars von Trier's 2003 film Dogville, the residents of that nice middle-American town are visited by a strange and mysterious outsider-Grace, played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman. Grace is just that-pure Good News to the "good" cookie-baking people of Dogville. Ultimately, though, the residents of Dogville choose to abuse Grace. For their "goodness," they get what they deserve-a meeting standing in propria persona with Grace's father at a Great Assize, no longer protected by the intercessory work of his daughter as advocate for Dogville before her father.
We all need an advocate on that day, One who knows every minute detail of our case (that is, our manifold and daily sins and wickedness and the depth of their total depravity) so as to marshal the only defense that can prevail-the defense of the perfect life and all-sufficient shed blood of the advocate himself that gives him unique and complete authority and power to pronounce that we are both forgiven and made righteous by his supremely meritorious work.
Fortunately, in the canonical Scriptures we have just that unique advocate with the Father. His death and resurrection-easily provable beyond a reasonable doubt in any court of law based on the sheer force of the evidential record found in the written eyewitness accounts-have fully secured an eternal "weight of glory" for all who believe. St. John puts it nicely in his first letter:
"If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."
Craig Parton is a trial lawyer and partner in Price, Postel & Parma LLP of Santa Barbara, California. He is also the United States director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, which meets each summer in Strasbourg, France, to provide advanced training in apologetics (see www.apologeticsacademy.edu). He is also the author most recently of Religion on Trial (Wipf & Stock, 2008).
Issue: "What Does it Mean to be Good?" May/June 2006 Vol. 15 No. 3 Page number(s): 9-11
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